bookmark_borderNew Age bullshit

Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman are a pair of names I’m running across more frequently on the New Age bullshit circuit. They’re a couple of seriously ignorant people. Here, for example, is an example from an interview on a “progressive” political site. (Leftish politics has a soft spot for New Age religion.)

In the current vision of scientific materialism, belief in matter is primary. The Newtonian belief that the universe is a physical machine takes our attention away from the invisible realm. We focus on material acquisition as a representation of how well we’re doing in our lives. We take the earth and the environment apart seeking more matter. The more matter you have, the more effective you are in this world. He who dies with the most toys wins.

Over 100 years ago, quantum physics said, “The invisible realm you ignore is actually the primary shaper of the physical realm.”

Aaaaargh!

Let’s see. Quantum physics does not go back over a hundred years; the 1920’s is the first decade where you see serious developments. And the New Age trope that quantum mechanics underwrites a holistic, spiritual vision of the universe is bloody nonsense. It’s seriously annoying to just about every working physicist who puts quantum mechanics to real use.

Speaking about New Age tropes, I also have to be appalled at how they quickly pass from scientific materialism to aquisitive materialism.

Sigh. There’s no hope, really. There’ll always be tons of New Agers, creationists, and pseudoscientists. And the bullshit they push will always be more popular than real science. After all, according to them, one way or the other, the deep structure of reality reflects their moral preoccupations.

bookmark_borderObama: almost as bad as a Republican

The ACLU has just issued a one-year assessment of the Obama administration’s actions on civil liberties, called “America Unrestored.” As the title indicates, Obama has not been all that good for abolishing Bush-era disgraces. There have been some symbolic acts, yes, but by and large, having centrist Democrats in power seems to mean a halting or slowing down of deterioration, not substantial improvement.

Before the 2008 elections, I expressed distrust of Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, where secularism and church-state separation was concerned. So far I seem to be more right than wrong. Yes, Obama has been decent about symbolic acknowledgement of nonbelievers. And many nonbelievers seem to be absurdly grateful about this. (For example, the AHA: “Humanists Applaud President Obama for Including Nontheists in Religious Freedom Day.”) But that just fits this president’s pattern of giving pretty speeches and doing nothing or worse when it comes to delivering substance. Take the most important breach in the wall separating church and state of recent times: faith-based initiatives. Here’s what the ACLU report has to say about the present administration and funneling money to faith-based organizations:

The Obama administration has not acted on these recommendations. In fact, as a result of economic stimulus spending, even more money is being disbursed using Bush-era government-funded religion rules. The only official action in the area of freedom of belief was the creation of a federal advisory committee – the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships – that is comprised mainly of religious leaders. This committee was created without first repealing Bush-era rules allowing federally funded religious organizations to apply religious hiring tests to employees.

I’m tempted to make nasty comments to those of my friends who were taken in by all the “hope” and “change” bullshit in 2008. Still, confirmed cynicism remains cold comfort.

bookmark_borderParrot Fatwa

You sometimes have to admire the comprehensive ambitions of Muslim scholars. They have to have a ruling for everything.

Hence my favorite fatwa of the week. Some guy asks if he is religiously obligated to return an “al-salaamu ‘alaykum” greeting spoken by a parrot. The scholar duly answers, comparing the parrot situation to tape recordings.

Too bad casuistic reasoning has fallen out of fashion in popular Christian circles. It can be so entertaining.

bookmark_borderThe Miracle of Creation?

To clarify how Richard Swinburne thinks about the question “Did God create the universe?” I think it might be helpful to consider how Swinburne thinks about the question “Did God raise Jesus from the dead?” In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, Swinburne distinguishes his thinking from that of “a typical New Testament expert”:

To start with, we need to take into account what I shall call ‘the general background evidence’, evidence (the data) about whether or not there is a God able and likely to intervene in human history in a certain kind of way. (ROGI, p.2)

Clearly, if there is an omnipotent God, there is a God able to bring about a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus. …If the evidence suggests that there is such a God, then it will give some probability to the occurrence of such a miracle insofar as God has reason to bring about such an event. I shall argue that he does have such a reason. (ROGI, p.2)

Swinburne gets fairly specific about God’s reasons (or purposes) for raising Jesus:

Chapter 2 considers reasons which God might have for becoming incarnate, that is, acquiring a human body and a human nature. The relevance of this is brought out in Chapter 3, where I argue that, if he did become incarnate, he would need to live a certain sort of earthly life and God would need to put his signature on that life by culminating it with an event which (if it occurred) would be evidently a miracle—what I shall call a super-miracle, such as the Resurrection. So God has a reason for bringing about the Resurrection if it is the Resurrection of God Incarnate… (ROGI, p.4)

To those who are skeptical about the existence of God and about other religious beliefs, Swinburne appears to have great confidence in conclusions that appear to be rather wild speculations (or heavily biased opinions) about the plans and purposes of God.

But setting that aside for the moment, I think Swinburne has an important insight here, and that he is pointing to a general weakness in the thinking of other theologians and apologists who have argued in defense of the resurrection: In order to show that it is likely that God did X, one needs to show that God has specific plans or purposes such that God’s doing X would be a reasonable way for God to achieve (or partially achieve) those plans or purposes.

I think the same sort of reasoning applies to the claim “God created the universe.” In order to show this to be true or probable, one needs to show not only that there is a God who was able to create this universe, but also to show that this God has certain plans or purposes such that the creation of this universe would achieve (or partially achieve) those plans or purposes.

bookmark_border“Because God Made it that Way”

Sometimes something humorous can provide philosophical insight. I got an e-mail from a former student, now community college instructor, called “how to fail with dignity.” It had exam questions with funny wrong answers actually given by students. One question was “Why is phosphorus trichloride (PhCl3) polar?” The answer, given by a student who appears devout but too lazy to study for a chemistry exam, was “Because God made it that way.” Presumably, the answer was marked wrong. But just why was it wrong? If “Because God made it that way” is wrong on a chemistry exam, why should it be an acceptable answer to ANY empirical question? Yet, many theists think that it is, for instance, an acceptable answer to questions about the origin of the universe or the beginning of life or major transitions in evolution. Why would they agree (as I presume they would) that the lazy chemistry student’s answer should be marked wrong, but hold that such an answer is an (in fact THE) acceptable answer to certain other empirical questions?

Thomas Nagel, in his book The Last Word says that appeals to the divine in empirical contexts are pseudo-explanations; saying “God did it” is really just a fig-leaf hiding our ignorance, a gesture towards a gap in our knowledge. Hence, all such appeals are rightly castigated as “God-of-the-gaps” arguments. I think he is right. Philosophers have debated at great length, and typically inconclusively, the nature of scientific explanation. Yet I think that Karel Lambert and Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. are right in their wonderful little introduction to the philosophy of science when they say that a scientific explanation, should, at least, tell us why the phenomenon or fact in question was to be expected, and theistic accounts, like astrological ones, just do not provide that information. Hence, when tempted to say “God did it” we should instead honestly admit our ignorance and wait for advancing science to close the gap and provide the explanation.

Theists would no doubt reply that the above paragraph begs the question by assuming that scientific explanations are the only legitimate ones. Richard Swinburne says that there are also personal explanations, i.e., explanations in terms of the actions of persons. “God did it” explanations are therefore assertions that God has performed a basic action. A “basic action” is one like raising my hand to answer a question. It is something I just do without doing anything else first. Saying “God did it” is therefore like saying “I did it,” that is, God’s basic actions are to be understood as analogous to my basic actions. Since we explain things all the time in terms of humans’ basic actions, there should be no in-principle objection to explaining things in such personal terms and no denigration of such explanations as uniformative or empty.

I don’t buy it. The analogy between divine and human actions would have to be a distant and tenuous one at best. Despite the anthropomorphic language of much of scripture, theology has always insisted on the very great difference between the divine and human natures. I perform a basic action by moving some part of my body, but God has no body; God does not literally say “Let there be light,” because God has no mouth, larynx, or tongue. Perhaps God’s basic action is a purely mental occurrence, consisting simply of having the volition that there be light. Yet again, God’s mind is so different from a creaturely mind, that it is hard to say what is supposed to be going on here. God is often conceived as both immutable and timeless, yet, as Kant observed, temporality seems to be an a priori condition for the occurrrence of any events, even purely mental ones, and thus they involve change. What it is like to will something immutably and timelessly is an utter mystery, and so invocation of such putative willing cannot enlighten us.

Even if theology were revised to make divine volition an intelligible procedure and tolerably analogous to our own ways of willing, there is the problem that invoking personal explanations as ultimate explanations, as Swinburne does, simply begs the question against physicalism. Physicalism holds that all legitmage explanations are physical ones and that even human volition and action is physically explicable. According to physicalism, then, personal explanations are simply way-stations on the way to deeper and better explanations. Sure, it explains why the doorbell rang to say that Keith rang it, but physicalists see this as a superficial explanation that admits of deeper explication in terms of physiology and, ultimately, physics. Indeed, I would say that things like thinking and willing are completely physically realized, and that makes enormous the disanalogy between human mental acts and putative divine ones.

So, I think that we should give F minus to someone invoking “Because God made it that way,” whether that person is a tyro chemist or a chaired professor of philosophy at a major university.

bookmark_borderTurkish Pat Robertson

A Turkish conservative newspaper columnist yesterday published an op-ed in which he acted as an Islamic version of Pat Robertson. Observing that “The Quran tells us that if collective sins are not met with collective repentance, that some disasters will occur in that region,” Nuh Gönültaş then says that “The fundamental reality of [Haiti] is that the majority of its people are engaged in witchcraft.” Indeed, “Voodoo is Haiti’s national religion. The majority of blacks living in Haiti perform satanist rituals, do human sacrifice, and make their living from magic.” He then says that of course only God knows the real reason behind the earthquake, but invites his readers to connect the dots. Natural disasters, after all, are but collective punishments from God, for sins that whole communities engage in or turn a blind eye towards.

I can’t find an English translation of the Turkish article. Too bad. It’s a good example of how some obnoxious loonies think alike across the Abrahamic religions.

bookmark_borderSecular aid and charity

The most prominent US humanist organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association, have appeals for donations to help Haiti, through secular channels. (CSH site; AHA site.)

In the interests of equal opportunity cynicism, though, I have to wonder how much of this is motivated by a need to demonstrate that the nonreligious can also be charitable. (“Look, we can do this too!”) I would expect it’s part of the picture. Christians often point out the social benefits of their beliefs by saying they organize all sorts of aid to the unfortunate. Some go further, accusing nonbelievers of being less interested in helping their fellow humans. There is, in fact, some (though controversial) social science supporting this accusation. So secular humanists promoting the social respectability of nonbelief have some incentive to visibly support secular means of aid and charity.

I don’t think that means too much, one way or the other. Our motivations are complicated. I guess one might ask if secular impulses to aid would be sustainable in the absence of a need to compete with religion. That’s a very difficult question to answer. My guess is that yes, secular aid and charity has its independent motivations. But secular charity and mutual aid also has a different character than the more traditional religious variety. I imagine those of us who are religious or nonreligious generally prefer our own way of doing things, regardless of comparisons of dollar amounts and so forth.

bookmark_borderHaunted by demons

It’s nice to know that we can count on Religious Right figures to say something grossly stupid at regular intervals. This time it’s Pat Robertson, talking about how Haitians are paying for a past pact with the devil.

I guess liberal believers and the nonreligious can use the sense of outrage this produces for a short while. Not a bad thing too—the fact is that people such as Pat Robertson are not just buffoons who are media-fodder. They enjoy real power and influence.

Still, outrages aside, what scares me is the suspicion that for quite a lot of ordinary people, the suggestion that real-world troubles may have roots in supernatural forces is not that implausible. For a lot of us, demons continue to haunt the world.

bookmark_borderMulticultural Respect

I keep trying to make sense of recurrent demands for “respect” of religious traditions that come from politically liberal and leftish circles, whom you wouldn’t immediately think of as affirming ways of life in which religious faith is central.

But then, these days “left” often means the multicultural left, the postmodern animal, rather than the left wing of the Enlightenment political tradition. So maybe the background notion of “respect” for other cultures (“the Other,” if I succumb to the standard academic terminology I find distasteful) that shows up in the popular media is derived from the multicultural left. Something like, for example, Charles Taylor’s argument that our identities are bound up on other people’s recognition and respect for us as individuals and group members. Equal concern for human beings then requires substantial respect, not mere tolerance, for their cultural identities. Disrespect is not just a possible precursor to possible material harms, but is a harm in its own right.

Maybe. There is something to all this. Nonetheless, very often I find that I cannot, in all honesty, extend respect to many religious beliefs and practices. I favor ways of living together that allow for a cold peace of “toleration” rather than happy-faced multicultural affirmation all around. Especially conservative religious people and I have deep and unreconcilable conflicts of interests and perspectives. I’m no more likely to bury my distaste for the public consequences of widely held conservative religious identities than the religious are likely to stop thinking I am destined for their hell.

bookmark_borderAmerican Evangelicals Promote Rabid Ugandan Homophobia

Uganda has recently considered imposing insanely draconian laws that would punish homosexuality with death and even imprison landlords who rent to gays or relatives who fail to rat out their gay kin. Who whipped up the homophobic frenzy that led to this madness? You get one guess. Yep. Fundamentalist nitwits, disappointed in their efforts to purge America of godless sodomites, have taken their crusade to Africa. According to Jeffrey Gettleman, writing in The New York Times, last March three evangelical American Christian activists–Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer–gave a series of talks in Kampala about how gays can be “cured” and how the “gay agenda” seeks to desroy marriage and promote a culture of promiscuity. One month later the death-for-gays bill was introduced. The Ugandan organizers of the anti-gay conference admit helping to draft the legislation. With breathtaking hypocrisy, even for Christian fundamentalists, the three American nitwits are now trying to distance themselves from the bill.

Even if the crazy bill does not become law, life for gays and lesbians in Uganda has gotten much worse. Quoting Gettleman: “Gay Ugandans…describe a world of blackmail, death threats like ‘Die Sodomite!’ scrawled on their homes, constant harassment, occasional beatings, and even so-called correctional rape.” “Correctional rape,” by the way, is the practice of raping lesbians to try to “cure” their attraction to females.

Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian minister who opposes the anti-gay hysteria, says that the three Americans “underestimated the homophobia in Uganda.” The Rev. Kaoma is extending far too much Christian charity to these rascals. I bet they knew exactly what they were doing and had every intention of promoting their bigotry precisely where they thought it would do the most damage. On the other hand, if they truly were that clueless, and they sincerely regret the firestorm they started by playing with matches, then these gutless wonders should stand up and take the blame due them rather than trying to weasel out.